After prolonging the military conflict at huge cost in lives and dollars, Obama now admits ‘peace cannot come to a land that has known so much war without a political settlement.’
It was certainly not the speech that the Nobel Committee had expected to hear, nor the one that Obama himself would have imagined delivering six years ago when as a state senator, he had vocally opposed the Iraq war. Ironically, it was the same Democrat president who in his inaugural address, had belittled his Republican predecessor’s eight years as a ‘bleak chapter’ in American history. He had spoken of costly wars, global image erosion and shattered economy as his ‘terrible legacy’ of multiple challenges, and promised a new America for the Americans as well as for the world at large.
Besides ending the war in Iraq, he pledged to bring the Afghan war to its ‘logical conclusion.’ He promised to pursue a fresh doctrine of ‘security through peace, not war.’ His words brought great relief across the globe on the prospect of change in America’s policies and outlook. The promised change is nowhere in sight. Obama has yet to deliver on his promise for peace. Instead he owned his predecessor’s war in Afghanistan by ordering, just days before receiving his Nobel Peace Prize, a heavy military surge of additional 30,000 troops for deployment in Afghanistan.
It took him almost two years to take the first practical step towards peace in Afghanistan. President Obama’s announcement of a substantive military withdrawal from Afghanistan beginning with 10,000 troops this year and another 23,000 by the end of next summer is ostensibly a major course reversal in the decade old Afghan conflict. Interestingly, the 33,000 total to be withdrawn just before presidential election next year is the same number Obama had sent as the ‘surge’ troops in December 2009 as part of what was then claimed ‘an effort to reverse the Taliban’s momentum and hasten an eventual political settlement of the conflict.’
But more than anything, the ‘surge’ appeared a politically motivated gambit; additional troops were sent to the war theatre only to be able to announce with fanfare a large withdrawal closer to the presidential election. It seems the Afghan war is now all about American politics. Obama had the option to make the peace move two years ago. He could have not only averted the surge-led violence, bloodshed and displacement in Afghanistan but also saved himself from the guilt over the avoidable human and material losses including a huge cost of sending the ‘surge’ troops with additional military wherewithal to Afghanistan.
And it would have certainly saved his party’s last year’s humiliating mid-term election defeat. The American people had to give him a message loud and clear registering their disillusionment with Obama’s complacent approach in handling the multiple challenges that he had pledged to meet in consonance with their wishes. The Democrats lost their majority in the House and narrowly escaped the same fate in the Senate. The people around the world were also disappointed to see Obama’s views on ‘the need to resort to force’ beginning to harden within months after his coming into office.
After prolonging the military conflict at huge cost in lives and dollars, Obama now admits ‘peace cannot come to a land that has known so much war without a political settlement.’ Who is then responsible for not pursuing a non-military approach? Had he started the talks with the Taliban two years go, at least by now, there would have been a clearer direction for the peace process in Afghanistan. But it’s never too late.
Indeed, it’s never too late for a lone superpower to come out of its belligerent mode. The problem with America is that it has too many unlearnt lessons. No other country in the world has done greater damage to its own global prestige and credibility because of its misdirected policies and misplaced priorities. Ironically, most of these policies have given no relief to the world, nor have they brought any political or economic dividends to the US itself. It has never practiced in an international context what it preaches globally, and what it claims to practice at home. Its record of keeping corrupt regimes and military dictatorships in power in many countries is too well-known to be recounted here.
In an uncharted global wilderness after the World War-II, the US took upon itself the responsibility of reshaping the new world order. It fought wars in Korea and Vietnam in the name of “freedom” and still keeps troops in Japan, Germany and Korea and a network of military bases and installations virtually in every region of the world, including the Persian Gulf kingdoms and Iraq. Any similar plan for Afghanistan will be a sure recipe for indefinite prolongation of the Afghan conflict.
The US may have its own political compulsions in the run-up to next year’s presidential election but both Afghanistan and Pakistan have suffered for too long and cannot afford another cataclysm. In particular, Pakistan has unmatched historical reasons to be closely linked to the future of Afghanistan, and is inevitably perturbed by America’s indifference to its legitimate security concerns and sensitivities. Its Afghanistan-related problems are further aggravated by India’s overbearing presence in Afghanistan with ominous nuisance potential for cross-border trouble in its volatile tribal areas.
Indeed, at no time has South Asia figured so prominently as a colossal challenge in US foreign policy. Today, the US has an unprecedented opportunity to transform not only the US foreign policy in this region but also the region itself. The real challenge for Washington is thus to mix deft diplomacy, security support and economic aid in pursuit of durable peace in this volatile region.
Instead of using Pakistan as an easy ‘scapegoat’ for their own failures in this war, the US and its allies must accept the reality that for Pakistan, Afghanistan is an area of fundamental strategic importance. If Soviet presence in Cuba almost triggered a nuclear war in the early 1960s, India’s continued ascendancy in Afghanistan remains a danger of no less gravity to the already volatile security environment of this ‘nuclearised’ region.
The risk of a Pakistan-India proxy war in Afghanistan is fraught with perilous implications for regional and global peace, and must be averted at all cost. Yes, the real Afghan issue now starts and ends with Pakistan. Washington knows this reality. It is the time Washington also realised that if the region’s stability was predicated on stability in Pakistan, special attention is warranted on reducing radicalism in Pakistan and redressing the imbalances in India-Pakistan equation.
Peace in this volatile region would remain incomplete without addressing the India-Pakistan issues which are not without direct impact on the overall situation in the Afghan theatre. On its part, Pakistan has direct stakes in Afghan peace, and despite the Abbottabad fiasco, it has an indispensable role to play in any Afghan-led reconciliation and negotiating processes. It is in its vital interest to have peace and stability in an independent Afghanistan that is friendly towards Pakistan and is free of foreign influences taking advantage of the transition process.
Speaking of peace in Afghanistan, it is important that the transition process should not ignore the Afghan demographic reality and is not weighted in favour or against any particular ethnic group. The Afghans have a fierce sense of independence, and have never been pacified by foreign forces. Historically, no military occupation for an indefinite period has ever worked in Afghanistan.
The experience of centuries, especially of the last three decades, should make one thing abundantly clear. No reconciliation imposed from outside will work in Afghanistan, and no exit strategy will succeed by further deepening the ethnic divide in this war-torn country. Durable peace in Afghanistan will come only through genuine Afghan-led reconciliation between Afghan factions, with no selectivity or exclusivity.
The US now recognises the Taliban as part of the Afghan ‘political fabric’ and reportedly has been holding preliminary meetings with their ‘representatives’ under German sponsorship. One only hopes that the Taliban in these talks are represented by genuine interlocutors with full authority and credentials to represent them.
The good thing is that the preconditions that both sides were seeking to set for the talks no longer seem to be obstructing the process of negotiations. They would now be pursued as the outcome of the peace process. A final peace settlement will be predicated on a mutual agreement leading to US commitment for withdrawal of all foreign forces within an agreed time frame in return for a verifiable Taliban commitment to severance of all ties with al-Qaeda and like-minded groups.
While the Afghans alone must be the arbiters on their domestic governance issues, a peace settlement must also contain an international guarantee based on UN Charter’s purposes and principles, for the independence, sovereignty, territorial integrity of Afghanistan with solemn mutual undertaking by all neighbouring and regional countries to respect the principle of non-interference in Afghanistan’s internal affairs.
It is also important that the regional countries do not use the territory of Afghanistan for destabilising activities. In this regard, Pakistan’s legitimate concerns must be taken care of by ensuring that the Afghan soil is not used for undermining its security and territorial integrity. All kinds of foreign support to anti-Taliban Afghan factions must also end after ISAF phases out.
The process is not going to be easy. But it is worth trying. It’s never too late to pursue peace.